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A Clear Message in a Bottle: Tap Water is Safe and Cheaper for Consumers

Bottled water has been described as one of the greatest marketing successes of the last century. Convincing consumers that the water coming from their home taps is unhealthy, getting them to pay again for more drinking water—in some instances, identical to what they receive from their water treatment facilities—and causing them to believe that their choice of water harms no one.

For all these reasons and more, bottled water companies have persuaded customers that purchasing their products is the best choice. But is it? Have you ever compared the cost of bottled water to that of the drinking water you as a utility provide? This article explores the true cost of bottled water.

What is bottled water?
It’s easy to get confused by the different terms used by bottling companies to push their products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies bottled water by the location in which the water originates:

  • Artesian well water comes from a well that taps a confined aquifer. A confined aquifer is one in which rock or clay surrounds the layers of the aquifer and provides pressure to the aquifer. The theory is that the confined layers provide protection from land-based contamination to the aquifer.
    Mineral water is groundwater that contains at least 250 mg/L of total dissolved solids (TDS), which consists of minerals and trace elements. The TDS of the mineral water must be original to the source water, not added after the groundwater is pumped.
  • Purified water is water obtained from municipal sources—tap water!—which goes through additional treatment, such as distillation, reverse osmosis, microfiltration or ozonation.
  • Spring water is collected directly from a spring, or from a borehole tapping the formation that feeds a spring. If a borehole is used, the collected water has to have the same constituents as those contained in the water in the spring itself.
  • Well water is groundwater that comes from either a confined or an unconfined aquifer.

Where do bottled water companies get their water supplies? Generally, they purchase land or water rights from communities. For instance, recently Nestle Waters (the company that bottles Arrowhead, Pure Life, Deer Park and five other brands of water) spent more than $4 million purchasing land along the Arkansas River in Colorado, and pays Aurora (Colorado) Water $160,000 annually for water supplies. Nestle Waters also donated $500,000 to two school districts in Chaffee County, Colo., where Nestle Waters is planning to withdraw between 65 and 73 million gallons of spring water each year, truck it 120 miles to Denver, and bottle it for sale.

Bottled water’s environmental impacts
The environmental impact from the production of plastic used in bottling water is astounding. Most bottled water companies use PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic for bottles. When 1 kg of PET is manufactured, 17.5 kg (4.63 gallons, or 17.5 liters) of water is used. The production of 1 kg of PET also releases 40 grams of hydrocarbons, 25 grams of sulfur oxides, 18 grams of carbon monoxide, 2,300 grams of carbon dioxide, and 20 grams of nitrogen oxides. 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic water bottles in the U.S. each year, roughly equivalent to the power required for 250,000 homes, or enough to run 100,000 cars for a year. At approximately 0.03 kg/bottle, around 35 bottles can be manufactured from 1 kg of PET. Each year, over 30 billion single-serving bottles of water are consumed in the U.S. alone.

In 2006, 900,000 tons (816 million kg) of PET was used to package 31.2 billion liters of bottled water. That translates into the use of 14.3 billion kg (3.7 billion gallons) of water and air emissions including 32.6 million kg of hydrocarbons, 20.4 million kg of sulfur oxides, 14.7 million kg of carbon monoxide, 1.88 billion kg of carbon dioxide, and 16.3 million kg of nitrogen oxides.

Only about 25 percent of water bottles are recycled—the rest are sent to landfills. Around 65 percent of U.S. communities have access to recycling facilities. But that still means that 612 million kg (1.35 billion pounds) of PET plastic is disposed of as waste in U.S. landfills annually, using those 2006 figures.

If recycling is available, PET can be used in a variety of products: carpet, clothing, automotive components, backpacks, notebooks, rulers, and even to make more plastic bottles. Recycling one ton of PET saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space, and producing plastic from recycled plastic takes two-thirds of the energy that producing plastic from virgin materials does.

Cost of bottled water
Most people understand that they are paying more for bottled water than for the water that comes from their taps, but do they really understand how much more? On average across the U.S., drinking water from the tap costs about $2.00 per 1,000 gallons, which translates to $0.002 per gallon, or five gallons for a penny. Here’s a chart that shows some typical prices for bottled water:

Brand

Cost per case

Cost per gallon

How much more?

Aquafina 24/16.9 fluid ounces:   $4.99

$1.57

785 times cost of tap water

Dasani

24/16.9 fluid ounces:   $5.99

$1.89

945 times cost of tap water

Evian 6/16.9 fluid ounces:     $7.49

$9.45

4,725 times cost of tap water

Fiji 6/16.9 fluid ounces:     $6.99

$8.82

4,410 times cost of tap water

Sparklett’s Home 20 gallons:                    $29.96

$1.50

750 times cost of tap water

This chart describes only the out-of-pocket expense for buying bottled water at the store. It does not include the additional costs for fighting the greenhouse gases and other air pollution generated by the production of bottled water, the effects of its transport from the source to the bottling plant, from the bottling plant to the distributors, and from the distributors to the stores. It does not include the costs involved in recycling, or the environmental burden of having bottles end up in landfills.

Is there a place for bottled water?
Your utility’s customers may be drinking bottled water because they think tap water tastes “funny.” Perhaps you could recommend to customers a point-of-use filter if they are sensitive to the natural mineral content in your source water or the disinfectants your system uses. Point-of-use filters last quite a while, are less expensive, and create less pollution than bottled water. In times of emergencies that affect your water treatment system adversely, bottled water can be a great alternative to protect public health.

Albert Einstein said, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” We should start thinking about the sustainability of the use of bottled water now —before it’s too late.

Kline is a staff writer in the RCAP national office. She is currently writing and compiling a comprehensive guidebook on the responsibilities of board members of water utilities in small communities that RCAP will publish later this year.